Fleischer Studios: Out of the Inkwell and Up, Up, and Away

It’s a surety that I have nothing to teach classic animation nerds about the art and story of Fleischer Studios (1921-1942). But I’ve mentioned that outfit on Travalanche on many occasions and I love them so much, I did want to pay them brief tribute.

In honesty Fleischer is my second favorite among the classic animation studios. I place Disney first for the same reason I place Chaplin first among silent comedians, both because Disney’s studio arguably created the template that was followed by all the others, but also on account of all that Disney accomplished down to the present day. To say you prefer something else to Disney is like saying, “Instead of oxygen I think I will now breathe helium.” Helium is certainly a cleverer choice, but you’re in denial about something basic. At any rate, in terms of my affections, I make the Fleischers my very strong second, much as I would place Buster Keaton in relation to Chaplin, and for many of the same reasons. The uncanny strangeness of their vision, the brilliance of the writing. And also because (I’ll freely admit) their early demise has them forever trapped in amber. They will always be “vintage” and old-fashioned, like an old blues record or an old Burma Shave billboard. I’m certain the art of R. Crumb and the ’70s kitch revival I wrote about here were a factor in all this. They helped whet my aesthetic appetite, as it were. Even if this were not so, however, even if they had exhumed their constellation of characters ignominiously in the present age as Warner Brothers periodically does, I still love the foundation, i.e., the Fleischer Brothers “universe” more than even the classic Warner Brothers one, which is saying a LOT because who doesn’t love THAT? (In fact I’m writing about Fleischer Studios before Bugs Bunny and company because it’s so much easier. Warner Brothers cartoons are a BIG topic.)

The Fleischer Brothers were Majer, or Max (1883-1972) and Dave (1894-1979). The family were Jews from Krakow. Max was born in the Old Country, Dave was born in Brownsville, Brooklyn, where the family lived (the same neighborhood where Phil Silvers was from, as it happens). Max was much the senior partner in many respects, but Dave contributed too much of value to compare him to, say, Roy Disney. I tend to compare them mentally to Ray Davies and Dave Davies, but that may be, as the Good Doctor would have it, “Too Many Daves”. Max worked at the Brooklyn Eagle when he was a young person, first as an errand boy, then eventually as an illustrator, creating editorial cartoons and comic strips for the paper, which makes me wonder strongly if he knew and/or was influenced by my relative Harrison Cady. He definitely studied formally at Cooper Union and the Art Student’s League. At the Eagle, he also worked as a photographer — an excellent preparation for later working in cinema. Meanwhile, Dave worked as an usher at the Palace Theatre, where he studied all the vaudeville comedians and absorbed the essence of their art, both for verbal gags and slapstick. He was also interested in clowns, especially one he had seen at Coney Island (or he had been one at Coney Island, I’ve seen both.). At any rate this became the inspiration for —

Koko the Klown, their first popular character, initially just called “the Clown”. It started as a series of experiments in the teens, but eventually became a popular mixed live-action and animation series called “Out of the Inkwell” in which a number of characters known as the Inkwell Imps would be seen to be drawn in the real world, and then would spring magically to life. The series went to the end of the silent era. For Ko-Ko’s Song Car Tunes, Max invented the “follow the bouncing ball” animation technique for audience singalongs, later used on TV by Mitch Miller on Sing Along with Mitch.

For a time in the ’20s the Fleischers also produced, or co-produced a silent comedy series called “Carrie of the Chorus” or the “Backstage Comedies” starring Peggy Shaw, which we wrote about here. Max’s daughter Ruth played Carrie’s friend. Ray Bolger, whom Ruth briefly dated, appeared in one of these.

With Hugo Riesenfeld and Lee Deforest, the Fleischers formed Red Seal Pictures. Their product included early singalongs to popular musical standards in the Car Tunes format, now with one sound. Some of them may predate Disney’s Steamboat Willie as the first talkie sound shorts.

At any rate Paramount Studios became Fleischer’s distribution machine, serving a function much like the one RKO did for Disney. During the talkie era, Fleischer went on to turn out some of its most memorable product.

The first of course was the sexy Jazz Age flapper character Betty Boop, which ran 1932-1939, although the character had started out the previous year as a sort of dog-human hybrid, not unlike, say, Disney’s Goofy. I’m glad the protoypical version was short-lived, I already have buckets of shame for having inappropriate feelings towards a cartoon woman. Imagine how that would compound if they were directed towards one who was part canine? Both men and women love Betty Boop for she manages to be both adorable and sexual, and it’s a type people warm up to for some reason. It feels real, recognizable. I have had so many female friends who sort of embraced her as kind of mascot or hero or role model, all the way back to high school. Men of course embrace her because they want to…embrace her. She’s naughty and funny, always sneaking out to have a good time and getting into trouble. Bimbo the Dog was her main love interest. One doesn’t want to inquire too closely into that. Although it’s interesting to see what became of how his character’s name was employed going forward, At any rate, models for the character included Helen Kane and Clara Bow, and indirectly a Harlem performer named Li’l Esther (whom some feel Kane had adopted her vocal mannerisms). Several women voiced the Betty Boop character over the years, in particular Mae Questel, followed by Little Ann Little. Boop boop a doop!

Popeye the Sailor, Fleischer’s most successful series launched in 1933. I wrote about that extensively here.

In 1939, spurred to action by Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937), the Fleischers released their first feature Gulliver’s Travels, which is absolutely charming. Watch it here.

Raggedy Ann and Andy — a brief series starring the rag dolls in 1940-41, more about that here.

Then in 1940 they launched their gorgeous, groundbreaking animated Superman series, which I wrote about here.

In 1941, the studio released its second feature Mr. Bug Goes to Town, which previewed two days before the attack on Pearl Harbor. Though critics loved it, it never got a proper release, and the studio, which had already been overextending for years in order to bring their ambitious plans to fruition, was sunk. Paramount head Barney Balaban fired Fleischer and absorbed his studio.

I tell you forthrightly that the above history is much truncated and simplifed for easy consumption. There is much more detail to it, both on the corporate and the artistic side. You’ll find countless blogposts and web articles about that stuff on the internet. Delightfully, Max’s grandchildren have revived a version of the company to manage its various brands and characters and properties and they have an excellent web site, accessible here.

In between Max and Dave’s generation and the current one, came Richard Fleischer (1916-2006), Max’s son and biographer, one time Chairman of the organization, and director of such films as 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (1954, for Disney of all people!), The Vikings (1958, which I wrote a little about here a few days ago), Fantastic Voyage (1966), Doctor Doolittle (1968), The Boston Strangler (1968), Tora! Tora! Tora! (1970), Soylent Green (1973), the 1980 version of The Jazz Singer, Amityville 3-D (1983) and Conan the Destroyer (1984). Now that is an amazing body of work, and that’s just some of it, so you know I’ll be giving him his own post sometime soon!

For more on the history of vaudeville, where Dave Fleischer got some of his best ideas, please read No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous and for more on silent film read  Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube.